Tag Archives: government

A very modern witch hunt

downloadI have  long list of books on my to-read list. At the moment I’m thoroughly enjoying Roxane Gray’s Bad Feminist, but now I’ve added the Penguin Book of Witches to my (constantly mushrooming) list.

The NPR review highlights that this is more than just an interesting trawl through history; the past has resonances in the present, particularly with regards to the reasons behind the witch hunts (in addition to a hatred/fear of women):

“Many of the scholarly conclusions as to what underscored the witch hunts are exculpatory, to some degree: it was agricultural ignorance, or it was a mold outbreak, or it was something else comfortingly remote from a contemporary audience.

And the most haunting truth that emerges in The Penguin Book of Witches is that there’s no such reassurance to be found. The reasons behind the accusations were certainly varied, but in their simplest form, the witch hunts happened when government seized the chance to prove its authority by persecuting those outside community protection.”

The review also touches on the difficulty of mounting a nuanced, counter-narrative to propaganda and critiquing government institutions, which made me think of the immigration and welfare debates.

I rant and rave all the time on these two topics because the government’s tone in these “debates” is downright offensive. It promotes the message that people on benefits (the majority of whom are pensioners or working poor) are “on the take” or lazy is a horrid throwback to a Victorian-style morality on poverty.

When it comes to immigration, government agencies – the Home Office in particular – paint caricatures of immigrants in much the same way, except they are able to steal jobs and welfare at the same time. Anecdotes are presented as trends or facts. Evidence is suppressed if it is inconvenient or misconstrued wherever possible.

That it’s the government doing this, with its resources and ability to influence and distort the media and public agenda, is truly dispiriting. It presents a real challenge to marginalised communities and civil society organisations to battle against, as the public mood is stoked and soured.

What I find revealing about both of these debates is that they are on issues that the government is struggling to assert its authority on. Some of this is out of its control. Globalisation means that people are on the move around the world, and despite the anguish of UKIPpers, it’s not one-way traffic (ask the Spanish about the transformation of places like Costa del Sol into British enclaves).

When it comes to welfare, you can’t look at that without looking at the world of work and the fact is that too many people aren’t earning enough to live with dignity without a top-op from the government. I’ll leave it to economists to ascertain how much control the government has over that – but I’m leaning towards the fact that it has a big lever that it can use to make the markets work better for people  – no, for me the real striking similarity on both issues is that the government will not (cannot?) be honest with people about the issues.

Let’s go with “will not”.

They won’t say that we can’t (if that’s your gripe) stop immigration, but we can prepare better and make it work for the country, equipping local councils to deal with changing populations and the pressure on public services.

They won’t say that it has helped to build Britain as we know it and is key to continuing this.

They won’t say that most of the welfare budget goes to pensioners, and they are the ones who vote, so they try to tread gently there and come down harder on everyone else.

They won’t say that for some people, work doesn’t pay more than benefits and this is a problem with the WORK, not the benefits, if the assessment for what you need to live with dignity is a figure higher than what the private sector is offering in some cases.

They won’t say that benefit fraud is a tiny amount, compared to tax evasion.

They won’t admit that blame for the crash lies with the financial sector but that the public is paying for it – that they are the biggest benefits recipients of all, and they still get to profit and gamble with the blank cheque that we’ll always pick up the bill with a bail-out.

And so if you don’t diagnose the problem properly, your solutions won’t hit the mark. Furthermore, when your solutions inevitably fail (immigration cap as a case in point) you doubly disappoint and further undermine public trust in politicians. At the same time, you’ve talked up the problem to the point that it’s a perpetual crisis – a crisis that you now can’t address because the solutions (stop immigration!) are impossible in the real world.

So….you assert your authority. The best way to do that is a modern-day witch hunt.



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Why we shouldn’t trust the markets with civic life

You know that feeling when you’ve been bumping up against an idea, something that you’ve been thinking about for a while in a muddled sort of way – and then someone comes along and spells it out so beautifully that it’s like a light bulb goes off over your head? That’s how I felt watching Michael Sandel’s Ted Talk: Why We shouldn’t trust the markets with our public life.

“We’ve drifted, almost without realising it, from having a market economy to becoming market societies.”

“The more things money can buy, the more affluence – or the lack of it – matters…when money comes increasingly to govern access to the essentials of the good life: decent healthcare, access to the best education, political voice and influence in campaigns; when money comes to govern all of those things, inequality comes to matter a great deal. “

“With some social goods and practices, when market thinking and market values enter, they may change the meaning of those practices and crowd out attitudes and norms worth caring out.”

There’s a lot of heat and not much light in the press right now about capitalism and socialism – particularly when trying to figure out Ed Miliband. I think that’s more to do with his attacking of vested interests and accepted market assumptions than any principled concern that we’re a breath away from communism. He hit the nail on the head with his attack on the profits of energy companies.

I’m not a fan of his – nor of David Cameron or Nick Clegg – but I think he has hit a nerve. The truth is this: while economists quibble about 0.1%  of growth and whether this means we had a double-dip or a triple-dip recession, and celebrate that economy is recovering (on balance sheets anyway) – down here in the real world, people are hurting*

I see my energy bills soaring but energy companies posting record profits. I see the same thing going on in rail, water and eventually, the NHS. The idea of the common good resonates with me – especially now – and I think the press obsession with the binary capitalism/socialism dividing line is a way of dodging the more difficult questions – which need some answers.

The truth is that not everything is for sale. The private sector can’t do what the State should. It’s there to make a profit, which is fine, but the State has a mighty big lever it can use (sparingly) to level inequality – though it’s not the only tool – and that matters because we don’t all start from the same point. And we all benefit from what previous generations left behind. As Obama clunkily put it:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

I don’t have the answers and the press is having a 1980s ding dong rehashing the old arguments about political systems (spoiler alert: capitalism won and is still winning) but Sandel’s has (one) of the big questions:

“In the end, the question of markets is not mainly an economic question. It’s really a question of how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”

*STILL hurting. Some since 2008, many since before then.

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